Political Machines

What was the legacy of urban political leaders from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s?

As cities and their problems grew rapidly the political
environment changed. No longer did politicians run small manageable
cities. These were big cities with big city problems and the
government structures designed to cope with these problems grew. As
the government grew it became the livelihood for many professional
politicians. Some would argue that these politicians were corrupt,
they would argue that they provided a needed service.

The following selection illustrates the way the politicians of the
city recruited followers:

What tells in holdin your grip on your district is to go right
down among the poor families and help them. I’ve got a regular system
for this. If there’s a fire in Ninth or Tenth or Eleventh Avenue, for
example, any hour of the day or night, I’m usually there with some of
my election district captains as soon as the fore engines. If a
family is burned out I don’t I don’t ask them if they are Republicans
or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to the Charity Organization
Society, which would investigate their case in a month or two and
decide if they are worthy of help about the time they are dead from
starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if
their clothes were all burned up, and fix them up until they get
things runnin’ again. It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics too –
mighty good politics. Who can tell me how many votes one of those
fires brings me? The poor are the most grateful people in the world,
and, let me tell you, they have more friends in their neighborhoods
than the rich have in theirs…

Another thing, I can always get a deserving man a job. I make
it a point to keep track of jobs, and it seldom happens that I don’t
have a few up my sleeve ready for use.

I hear a young feller that’s proud of his voice… I ask him to
join our Glee Club. He comes up and sings, and he’s a follower of
Plunkitt for life. Another young feller gains a reputation as a
baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball club.
That fixes him. You’ll find him working for my ticket at the polls
next election. I rope them all in by givin’ them opportunities to
show off themselves off. I don’t trouble them with political

–George Washington Plunkitt, Politician, New York, 1889

Machine Organization

The political machine consisted of three elements: part bosses or
a county committee, which governed the party, machine and controlled
the politicians; election district captains who mobilized and
organized support at the neighborhood level; and party loyalists who
supported the machine with votes and financial support in return for
jobs, favors and help provided by bosses and election district

The County Committee

The county committee consisted of professional politicians and the
party’s top office holders within the county. In some cases, a single
leader, called the “party boss,” would dominate the committee.
Chicago’s Richard J. Daley exercised a controlling influence in
Chicago in the 1960’s. Often, however, no single individual dominated
the machine. The Tammany Hall machine that controlled New York
City’s politics from late in the 18th century until midway into the
20th century was seldom dominated by a single “boss.” Boss
, the last of the Tammany Hall politicians was an exception.

The power of the county committee was based upon its ability to
dominate both elections and the city government. The county committee
had absolute control over party nominations and almost total control

over the money and votes needed to win election. As a result, the
machine’s leaders possessed enormous influence with elected
government officials, including mayors, judges, county commissioners,
and prosecutors.

Through their control of local government offices and influence
over elected officials, members of the county committee controlled
government “patronage” jobs that could be used to reward loyal party
workers. At the same time, county committee members were in a
position to demand financial contributions from businesses within the
county in exchange for preferential treatment from the government.
Firms that contributed to the machine might receive government
contracts, favorable tax treatment, and prompt municipal services.
Those that refused would often be harassed by county health and
safety inspectors, find their tax assessments increased, and have
difficulty obtaining municipal services, such as trash collection and
snow clearance.

Political machines often accepted payments from criminal
enterprises in exchange for protection from police interference with
their activities. In New York City, for example, protection money
paid by gambling and prostitution rackets offered the infamous
political machine led by William Marcy Tweed a steady source of
income during the mid-19th century. On election day, a massed army of
small-time thugs and hoodlums returned the favors of the Tweed Ring
by stuffing ballot boxes with votes for Tweed and intimidating

Wards and Precincts

The county committee’s control of government jobs and its ability
to secure contributions from business firms enabled it to establish
and maintain the machine’s second organizational tier, the precinct
or ward organization. A precinct is the smallest electoral district
within a county. Cities are usually divided into wards, each
containing a number of precincts, for the purpose of electing members
of the municipal council. The machine’s ward organization consisted
of a ward committeeman who, in turn, directed the activities of
precinct captains. Usually the committeeman and the captains received
government jobs in exchange for their party efforts. Often these
individuals did little actual government work. Their real job was to
serve the needs of friends, families, and neighbors; secure the
loyalty and votes of these constituents; and thereby strengthen the
party. Many ward leaders also benefited financially from the
preferential treatment they could offer local businesses and
contractors. Among the most famous ward bosses was George Washington
Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall ward boss of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Plunkitt’s personal credo was “I seen my opportunities and I took

The precinct captains were the machine’s workhorses. Each precinct
captain was responsible for establishing relationships with the
several hundred families in the precinct. Captains offered a variety
of services to their constituents. They could help family members
find jobs with the municipal government or with businesses obligated
to the government. Captains could assist with minor legal problems.
Captains often operated informal social service agencies, providing
money, food, clothing, and shelter to destitute constituents.

Party Loyalist

Benefits at the ward and precinct level provided the machine’s
link to the foundations of its organization, the party loyalists in
the electorate. Individuals with city jobs obtained through the
machine were usually expected to contribute approximately 10 percent
of their salaries to the party. More important, they and members of
their families were expected to participate in party work during
election campaigns. In a national election, hundreds of thousands of
these loyalists knocked on doors, handed out leaflets, persuaded
their friends and neighbors to support the party, and helped bring
voters to the polls. Party machines were particularly effective in
mobilizing immigrant voters who often spoke little or no English and
had only a rudimentary understanding of American politics. The
machine provided immigrants with social services and jobs in return
for their votes.

Decline of the Machine

Political machines began to decline in importance after 1900. Led
by Thomas Nast’s cartoons the Tammany Hall machine came down
and others soon followed.

The Tammany Tiger: What are you
going to do about it
Artist - Thomas Nast
here for another classic Nast cartoon attacking Tweed

The federal government began to go after corruption in the cities.
Progressive Era reformers at the turn of the century successfully
compelled local governments to introduce civil service systems to
replace party patronage in government employment. By the 1960s, only
a small number of political machines remained in the United States,
largely in cities such as Chicago that had been able to escape
full-scale civil service reform. Democratic Party reformers
undermined these remaining machines between 1968 and 1972, though a
handful still exist. The Republican Party of Nassau County, New York,
for example, retains control of more than 20,000 patronage jobs in
the county.